A look into outdoor education following a formidable year of stressors.
I’ve been an environmental educator for almost a third of my life. There is absolutely no other feeling like watching a kid’s face light up when they discover something new to them, their pride in getting to create something, or the pure joy experienced by simply running around outside. The past year, these moments have seemed more poignant than ever.
I would be a broken record to harp on the challenges that this year has brought to businesses, families, and individuals. It really has just felt like everyone is doing their very best just to keep it together. As much as the adults hoped to shield their kids from the adverse impacts of the pandemic, it is apparent that our youth has been significantly affected. I say this because we have all seen it. While adults have a lifetime of tools they can employ to endure hardships, kids simply do not yet have ample life-experience from which to draw. In light of the magnitude and duration of the pandemic, the kids we see every day are doing the very best they can…and we can help.
The mental health benefits of being outside
The World Health Organization (WHO) frames mental health in terms of one’s behavior during times of stress. A person who is able to maintain some semblance of a state of well-being, autonomy, and psychological resilience (the ability to “bounce back” from stress) during tumultuous times is “mentally healthy” (WHO, 2002). This same understanding applies to children.
A 2016 study conducted by Mutz and Müller explored the hypothesis that outdoor adventures enhanced the mental health of children and young adults. They found that “outdoor excursions foster those psychological factors which are associated with resilience, well-being and good health.” Time outside and immersion in nature are resources that are always available and never dwindle. They can be employed as tools for therapy, emotional cognizance, and development of autonomous skills. Environmental engagement can also be used as a preventative measure. Kids that seem to take stress in-stride still reap the same magnitude of benefits from nature as those who are struggling.
Outdoor learning with Mountain Roots
Mountain Roots was founded with the idea that kids simply need more exposure to nature. We have known for a long time that a derivative of nature-immersion is its ability to transcend almost anything else that is happening around us. For years, I have watched kids experience so much unbridled glee by running around outside, or going on a hike, or going for a swim. Considering the absolute physical, mental, and emotional immersion that nature provides, it is no wonder that engagement with the natural environment stimulates children’s imagination and delight so completely.
In the context of this past year, the service that Mountain Roots has been providing to the community has felt even more significant than usual. It has felt like a crucial provision of stress-relief for students and adults, alike. At the K-8 school where we facilitate a full-term Outdoor Education class, written into the curriculum are lessons intended to simply check-in with students. To us, conducting social and emotional discussions in the backdrop of nature connects young people with the notion that the outdoor space is a safe one. According to the aforementioned Mutz and Müller study, following “an outdoor adventure, youths and young adults report lower levels of stress, particularly with regards to troubles and demands.” Additionally, these same groups reported an enhancement of self-efficacy, mindfulness, and “momentary happiness and life satisfaction,” defined as “subjective well-being.” Professionally, I can attest that it is the intention of our programming to emphasize these mental-health benefits whilst developing a positive relationship with nature. Personally, I get to bear witness to these benefits on a daily-basis, an enterprise that feels both fulfilling and important.
Mutz, M. & Müller, J. (2016). Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of Adolescence, 49, 105-114. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.03.009
World Health Organization (WHO). (2002). The world health report 2001. Mental Health: new understanding, new hope. Geneva.